NOT CATCHERS ON THE RYE
Pretension, balancing banality with self-
effacement leads to phoniness,
and although Holden Caulfield is not on the shelf,
his author lives in loneliness,
a great observer of all false sophistication,
replacing the imperative
of thought with stylish and comedic contemplation,
the funny nerve of narrative.
For those of us who are not catchers in the rye,
it seems the author dropped the ball,
his past epiphanies by leaving, sine die,
Damascus, deader far than Paul.
Inspired by an article on J. D. Salinger, who turns 90 on New Year’s Day, by Charles McGrath (“Still Paging Mr. Salinger,” NYT, December 31, 2008):
On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout. Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone….. In general what has dated most in Mr. Salinger’s writing is not the prose — much of the dialogue, in the stories especially and in the second half of “Franny and Zooey,” still seems brilliant and fresh — but the ideas. Mr. Salinger’s fixation on the difference between “phoniness,” as Holden Caulfield would put it, and authenticity now has a twilight, ’50s feeling about it. It’s no longer news, and probably never was. This is the theme, though, that comes increasingly to dominate the Glass chronicles: the unsolvable problem of ego and self-consciousness, of how to lead a spiritual life in a vulgar, material society. The very thing that makes the Glasses, and Seymour especially, so appealing to Mr. Salinger — that they’re too sensitive and exceptional for this world — is also what came to make them irritating to so many readers.Another way to pose the Glass problem is: How do you make art for an audience, or a critical establishment, too crass to understand it? This is the issue that caused Seymour to give up, presumably, and one is tempted to say it’s what soured Mr. Salinger on wanting to see anything else in print. Sadly, though, Mr. Salinger’s spiritual side is his least convincing. His gift is less for profundity than for observation, for listening and for comedy. Except perhaps for Mark Twain, no other American writer has registered with such precision the humor — and the pathos — of false sophistication and the vital banality of big-city pretension. For all his reclusiveness, moreover, Mr. Salinger has none of the sage’s self-effacement; his manner is a big and showy one, given to tours-de-force and to large emotional gestures. In spite of his best efforts to silence himself or become a seer, he remains an original and influential stylist — the kind of writer the mature Seymour (but not necessarily the precocious 7-year-old) would probably deplore.
© 2008 Gershon Hepner 12/31/08